A soupy insouciance

Posted: July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on the 11th July 2014.

A few days after the Federal Territories Minister issued his ban on soup kitchens within a 2km-radius from Lot 10, I joined the children of Yayasan Chow Kit for buka puasa on my birthday. I have been a trustee since its inception, and was involved while it was still operating as Rumah Nur Salam under the auspices of Yayasan Salam Malaysia. Today YCK operates three centres: Pusat Jagaan Baitu’Amal and Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak (PAKK) for younger children and the KL Krash Pad (KLKP) for teenagers. Over the years, hundreds of kids have regularly used the various services provided by the centres – including shelter, education, counselling and rehabilitation – funded by a combination of government grants and corporate donations.

Many of the children of Yayasan Chow Kit are stateless or refugees, and encounter particular difficulties in accessing services, especially education. We have long argued that it is in everyone’s interests that these children are in school instead of on the streets – where unfortunately they can end up being involved in activities that incur social costs – but the standard response from policymakers is that non-Malaysians should not receive services paid for by Malaysians. “Publicly-funded Malaysian schools are for Malaysian children,” some parents will no doubt insist, “and I don’t want my kids sitting with refugees.”

That is why Ideas, in partnership with the Dutch NGO Young Refugee Cause, is establishing a learning centre, the Ideas Academy (www.ideasacademy.org.my), to cater for needy urban children including the stateless (this is separate from our other educational initiative, the Ideas Autism Centre). It will use the Canadian curriculum bearing in mind that many of the students may ultimately be destined for other countries, and hopefully prove beyond doubt that civil society can work effectively with the private sector to provide educational services to the most disadvantaged in society — a notion that is equally incomprehensible to the authoritarian Right as to the socialist Left, who believe that government must monopolise the education sector to ensure ‘proper values’ or ‘justice for all’ (how’s that working out, eh?).

While there are such initiatives for children, however, there are also thousands of adults who are homeless in Kuala Lumpur. As has already been related in many stories since the debacle started, these encompass a mix of people: from those who have long been living on the streets engaging in petty trade, to those who once had relatively comfortable lives but later encountered personal tragedies, deaths in the family or other misfortunes. It is to these people that soup kitchens have catered.

Soup kitchens are perhaps the ultimate symbol of civic responsibility: their funders and volunteers understand the frailties of urban life and dedicate financial resources as well as time to help those who have been its victims. But there is one aspect which trumps them all: from my observations and interactions with soup kitchen volunteers –whether here, in London or in the most impoverished parts of Detroit which I visited last year – one consistent characteristic is the dignity with which people are treated. Unlike impersonal government welfare programmes designed on the basis of statistics and maps and potential political capital, soup kitchen volunteers interact with individuals face-to-face, immerse themselves in the community and ultimately earn respect, friendship and gratitude.

Perhaps we are all being too harsh on the Federal Territories Minister. Our capital would indeed look smarter if there were no visible signs of poverty. And our tourist spots are indeed blighted by syndicates of beggars, not advertised in the Visit Malaysia Year 2014 brochures. And some of these syndicates are indeed foreign. But the one-handedness with which the new measures were announced points to a breathtaking ignorance on the part of the authorities by putting everyone in the same boat. As we have seen all too often in pronouncements of government policy, there was little prior consultation with those who are most well-versed in the topic.

I would reiterate another point about governance: it is high time that our cities are governed not by appointees of Putrajaya or state governments, but instead be given the right to directly elect executive mayors with significant responsibilities. This would create much greater local accountability on all issues directly affecting the cities. Some politicians would find such a development intolerable to their career prospects: to them I say emulate Joko Widodo, who proved himself as Mayor of Surakarta before running as Governor of Jakarta, and now he is a presidential candidate.

After the Federal Territories Minister made his announcement, one soup kitchen which operates within the banned zone approached YCK to see if we could host them. Our centres are just outside the zone, so if we can, we will!

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on 4th July 2014.

IT has emerged that a number of Malaysians have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or Syria, or al-Sham: thus either Isil or Isis, but the former avoids confusion with our friends at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies), and it is shuddering to think that compatriots would be capable of the acts that have been reported, even filmed: the interrogation and murder of truck drivers, the humiliations and summary executions of captured soldiers.

In this context it is bewildering why anyone would cite Isil fighters as an example of bravery in the face of the enemy. Why not mention the selfless Raja Aman Shah Raja Harun al-Rashid, who as captain of the third Battalion of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force that fought the Japanese during World War II, and was ultimately executed after refusing to be released from captivity unless all his comrades were also released? Why not cite the warriors of Yamtuan Antah who, during the War of Bukit Putus in 1875, pushed the British back to the Residency in Sungei Ujong before artillery reinforcements arrived? Why not refer to the courageous heroes of all ethnic backgrounds who have received the nation’s highest award, the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa – one of the few federal honours yet to be sullied by political patronage?

We must accept that there are push and pull factors responsible for the decisions of young Malays to fly halfway around the world to take up arms. Clearly, they are disenchanted in their own country: either because of a lack of opportunities or a clash in values, they feel their lives cannot be fulfilled by what Malaysia has to offer. On the other hand, enticing them to the Levant is the promise of service to God and subsequent heavenly rewards, propelled by Isil’s masterly use of social media.

But perhaps the seed of this phenomenon lies in shocking failures in our education system. Already there are Malaysians who are growing up with entirely different values, making a unified sense of citizenship increasingly elusive. Recently I learnt that in one school, children were taught to habitually step on portraits of leaders – a rejection not just of the individuals portrayed but the entire constitutional system itself, purportedly for being insufficiently Islamic. It is no surprise that such hate-filled students are ripe for radicalisation, being then sent for further training abroad.

It is a given that such extremism should never be allowed in our schools, but there is much more to be done. It is essential that we teach our common history and elucidate the concept of shared citizenship at every stage of education. Of course, once young Malaysians enter the workforce there should ideally be meaningful opportunities for them to become fully fledged members of society contributing to economic, cultural and spiritual life, in a climate of political freedom — for the links between education, freedom, poverty and terrorism have been much discussed.

Isil has now declared itself to be ‘the’ Islamic State, complete with ‘the’ Caliph. No doubt this will attract some who believe that it is their religious duty to support ‘the Islamic State’. The lessons of history will be lost on them, for there were periods when competing Caliphates existed simultaneously: in the 10th century, the Sunni Umayyads claimed it from Cordoba [beginning with the enlightened Abd-ar-Rahman III (previously Emir) from 929 to 961], the Shia Fatimids from Cairo and the Sunni Abbasids from Baghdad. There, the great Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) established the House of Wisdom, the epitome of his reign in which music, art, maths, medicine, astronomy and philosophy flourished, driven by the translation of earlier Greek and Chinese works – this was truly the peak of the Islamic Golden Age. In 796, he moved his court for geopolitical reasons to Ar-Raqqah, which Isil today calls its capital, and where music has already been banned. There could scarcely be a more diametrically opposite regime.

Looking at our own history, some Rulers also claimed the title of Caliph, and at their installations a particular verse of the Qur’an was intoned: “We have appointed you Caliph [vicegerent] on Earth!” Sadly, most politicians today arguing that Malaysia is a secular or Islamic state or some configuration in between have largely ignored our history (and our federal structure) in arriving at their conclusions — not merely the deliberations of the Reid Commission, but centuries before that.

But now, while Wisma Putra denounces the Malaysians who have joined terrorists in the Levant (originally from Latin, via French meaning where the sun rises), it is to the Attorney General, or the Home Ministry, or even Parliament, that we turn to see what might happen to those who effectively committed treason by fighting on behalf of a foreign power.

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Let me tell you that with every passing year, you’re becoming the most wise and intelligent friend that I have ever known! May you continue to put out the very best in your life! Happy 32nd Birthday my friend Yang Amat Mulia Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz and Salam Ramadhan!

By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on June 27, 2014, Friday

FINALLY, the greatest spectator sports event in the world has begun. Millions across the globe will be following intently as the ball traverses furiously from one half to the other across the grass. Already many eager eyes are watching for the added bonus of enjoying some of the most attractive athletes competing. Their performances will inspire enthusiasts of the beautiful game in every country, and from the great arenas we will hear the soothing civilised applause each time a point is won.

Wimbledon is back.

In the meantime we have to continue enduring some other tournament in honour of a sport which is linked to hooliganism and corruption more than any other (the latter aspect so lucidly explained by English comedian John Oliver in a widely shared video on YouTube), though thankfully the time difference from Brazil is such that tennis matches are more likely to survive instead of being rudely called out as was the case during the South Africa World Cup four years ago.

Despite my bias in sports, I do concede that more Malaysians will watch the World Cup than the Wimbledon Championships, and it has resulted in some interesting phenomena. Because Malaysia aren’t (yes “aren’t”: it seems that only football teams are referred to using the collective plural, probably due to British usage adopted with the popularity of the English Premier League) in the World Cup, you get the same level of fanaticism that we see expressed for league or state teams, but attached to foreign national teams instead. Except it is worse: because the World Cup is a relatively rare event, people are more ostentatious about declaring their support by wearing the appropriate jerseys.

I was in a lift the other day and two strangers started commiserating with each other because they were both visibly fans of Spain. They looked at me as if inviting me to contribute something to the discussion: I thought of saying something about the legacy of Juan Carlos I (of whom Rafael Nadal has expressed effusive opinions) instead, but luckily the door opened to enable my exit. (I’m going to walk around with my Roger Federer hat throughout Wimbledon and see if any strangers commiserate with me if he doesn’t do well enough to obtain his 18th Grand Slam victory.)

And besides my bias, I do understand the higher purposes that football can serve. I’m not referring to the fact that so far it is only a victory in football that has triggered a federal holiday (after Malaysia won the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup in 2010) — but rather, the links between football and Merdeka.

The first president of Football Association of Malaya (FAM) was Andrew Caldecott (the District Officer of Jelebu who composed the Negeri Sembilan state anthem, and later the Governor of Hong Kong and Ceylon), but the first local president was Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was the driving force behind a new stadium for the game, but before any football game was played there, it served as the venue for the Proclamation of Merdeka. During his premiership of the country he made frequent reference to the importance of sport in general but football in particular, saying “in keeping up with the spirit of Merdeka we must wipe out racial discrimination and through football help to build a united nation”.

Team fanaticism aside, in our divisive times not even football is sufficient to universally unite people across ethnicities and religions. In the past there were objections to offensive images or logos on jerseys, but now even the sport itself is deemed by some to be in contravention of their religious beliefs. There were also ugly overtones in discussions about our national badminton heroes on account of their ethnic background. If we can’t get our country to unite over sport — historically probably the most successful catalyst of unity as observed by our first Prime Minister — then the fractures running through our country are deep indeed.

In the meantime, thankfully there are still many efforts to ensure that sport remains a tool for national unity: not just the various programmes run by the government and private sector in getting young people to play more sport, but through cultural initiatives as well — such as the recent announcement of another season of ‘SuperMokh — The Musical’.

Amidst the World Cup fever someone managed to unearth headlines from 1999 declaring FAM’s target for Malaysia to be in the World Cup in 2014. We read that now and chuckle, deriding ourselves for being so optimistic. But the real tragedy is that we could unearth so many lofty ambitions from our past and realise the extent to which we are still yearning to achieve our potential.

Chat  —  Posted: July 4, 2014 in Life, South East Asia

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post and The Malay Mail on the Friday 13th June 2014.

The thing I enjoy the most, across all the organisations I’m affiliated with, is meeting young Malaysians. At these interactions, I discover what the next generation know about our nation’s history and what they think of their prospects in this future.

Though most of these meetings happen in the Klang Valley, I’ve also had memorable conversations in Penang, Perak, Melaka, Johor, Sarawak and Negeri Sembilan. Sometimes, I finish dialogue sessions with a sense of dismay – the kids did not ask relevant questions, were excessively shy or deferential, or were very set in their ways with no attempt (and no incentive) to think about the world outside their geographical, ethnic, cultural or religious borders. I depart sad about the future and more determined to support changes in educational policy or curricula to foster critical thinking, competition and empathy. Sometimes, however, I leave a school or university with a spring in my step, because the students were so incisive and ambitious, yet still humble, and I drive away in the hope that our institutions will one day be filled by their adult versions.

Any event involving music, however, always leaves me optimistic about what young Malaysians can achieve. After I worked on the Negeri Sembilan State Anthem Project in 2009, I was surprised to be invited to play at concerts (at UKM and with TKC), to be patron of musical organisations and even to spend a day teaching music during TFM Week. I’ve lost track of the number of school performances I’ve watched, and some of them are stunning in their execution: after ‘The Wedding Singer’ at Cempaka Cheras last month I said they could rival Istana Budaya or KLPAC. At the very top level, I’ve met Malaysians in the Vienna Boys’ Choir and seen Tengku Ahmad Irfan cast his spells at the piano. Of course, it’s also a joy to see young people play traditional instruments such as the caklempong and serunai at the Istana too.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the children of the Arioso Sinfonia: their mentor (and ‘big sister’ figure) Angel Lee had asked me to accompany them at one of the monthly Sunday matinees at the Royale Bintang Resort in Seremban. Many of the children at her school are from single-parent or low-income families: it’s her mission to equip the kids with a skill which will help them derive an income, even if they don’t end up becoming professional musicians – though I imagine several of them will, having already won so many awards.

The Royale Matinee Concerts, an initiative of Angel’s in partnership with the hotel, have already done much to encourage more Seremban musicians to emerge from their shell, but my performance there was a prelude to a bigger event that she had organised: the second Euroasia Youth Music Festival, of which I was patron.

This week-long festival took place at the Seri Pacific hotel in Kuala Lumpur, attracting 32 young pianists and string players for master classes with four outstanding French virtuosi. I sat in some of the lessons, witnessing how methods and passions were transferred from teacher to pupil. The teachers were routinely amazed at how much progress was made, not just in terms of technique but also emotional interpretation. The jurors, headed by National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mustafa Fuzer Nawi and concert pianist Loo Bang Hean, concurred as they awarded prizes on the last day.

The ‘Europe and Asia’ theme was not just limited to the people, but extended to the repertoire as well. The faculty concert included Ravel’s ‘Piano Trio in A Minor’, whose second movement, ‘Pantoum’, is based on the Malay poetic form of pantun. The opening concert included a piece by Debussy, who was famously enamoured by the gamelan, while the gala concert included two Malay pieces arranged for orchestra. Cultural exchange has mutually enriched societies for centuries, and there was never a mythical ‘Golden Age’ of isolated cultural purity as some might wish to think.

As I sat down to play Datuk Johari Salleh’s ‘Selamat Pergi Pahlawanku’, the students who I had been rehearsing with whispered “Good luck Tunku”: this was the culmination of my musical interlude. I fumbled a bar of fiendish semiquavers, but this was only to keep the audience alert.

At the closing dinner, I felt sadness percolate the room. Neither our French guests nor the children wanted the week to end. Everyone had been immeasurably enriched, and I was lucky to have received some of that enrichment. If only all Malaysian children across every academic discipline and extra-curricular activity could benefit from such experiences: we could all walk with greater spring in our steps.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post & The Malay Mail on 6th June 2014.

The penultimate sentence of my column last week was apparently too condensed to be fully understood. What I meant, in reference to political parties’ role in the Perak Menteri Besar crisis of 2009, was that Barisan Nasional should have taken responsibility for selecting candidates who failed to win seats to enable them to form the state government in the first place, and that Pakatan Rakyat should have taken responsibility for selecting candidates who for whatever reason failed to remain loyal to their coalition. These were the real weaknesses, rather than the subsequent decisions of a former Lord President.

Thus the scrutiny placed upon both candidates in the recently concluded by-election in Teluk Intan was most welcome. Admittedly, media attention of candidates in a lone parliamentary by-election will exceed coverage of budding state assemblymen amidst a general election, but voters’ desire to research candidates’ credentials will only increase, particularly if they felt betrayed in the past. [Meanwhile, in the UK a bill was just announced to enable constituents to sack (‘recall’) their MPs.]

The voters of Teluk Intan – unlike those of Bukit Gelugor the week before – were fortunate to have the opportunity to choose between two compelling candidates. The positive branding – Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud as earnest and exuberant, Datuk Mah Siew Keong as an honourable local – stuck throughout the campaign.

Equally adhesive was the criticism directed at both that they would be mere puppets of political masters to whom they would owe their continued careers.

Neither side satisfactorily dealt with that charge. It is natural that party apparatchiks will want their party to win every election, regardless of their candidate – but the health of our political system depends on the quality of the people in our democratic institutions, of which parliament is at the heart. Some people are so fixated on replacing the executive branch that they forget the need to strengthen the more vital organ. Indeed, even Pakatan supporters have clamoured for more checks and balances in states where that coalition is in control, because some leaders have become too comfortable controlling the reins of power. PKR’s N Surendran, soon to return to the Dewan Rakyat after a six-month suspension, recently labelled parliament a wasteful rubber stamp – but there’s no guarantee that situation will change significantly if his coalition leaders control Putrajaya, particularly if those leaders are the same people who determine who gets to run on their party ticket.

That’s why, alongside parliamentary reforms (like our previous suggestions for the Dewan Negara), the quality of candidates is vital – reasonable intelligent people on both sides are likelier to debate in the national interest. It’s this belief that led one Pakatan Rakyat MP to express sadness that Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah lost in Temerloh last year. In that MP’s estimation, the former Deputy Minister of Higher Education was preferable to his elected colleague from PAS.

Did the voters of Teluk Intan apply this logic in making their choice last weekend? Judging by the campaign, it seemed many other criteria took precedence. Racial politics still featured centrally despite the candidates’ efforts to raise issues such as cost of living or development projects like a new university (though proposing Unesco Heritage Listing for the Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan was fanciful, to put it mildly, given that the two entire historic cities of Melaka and George Town jointly count as one item on the list). Also in play was what victory would mean for the candidate’s parties: for DAP, a successful recalibration of its racial image; for Gerakan, a triumphant resurgence in relevance. Even in as much as candidate’s individual qualities were brought up, there were too many facile references to “good looks” (and in a comic response, “inner beauty”). Unfortunately, much of the media were complicit in this exercise.

Predictably and sadly there were despicable incidents during the campaign – the circulation of false photographs, jeering and other forms of intimidation, defacements of posters – but on the upside, the candidates themselves were exonerated from direct responsibility for the worst of these. Indeed, some of the so-called ‘support’ actually backfired spectacularly.

In the aftermath there has been much analysis of why the votes went the way they did: lower turnout, recent concern over hudud, the local vs outsider factor, masochism, etc.

No doubt the strategists on both sides will be extrapolating all sorts of trends to help them prepare for the next battle. But perhaps the most important lesson has already been learnt: in today’s electoral contests, every candidate will need to be a winnable one – and ideally, loyal enough to not defect, but not obsequious to the extent of being labelled a puppet.

I conclude with a word none of the party leaders ever utter: primaries.

By His Highness Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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First published in The Borneo Post on 30th May 2014

“I SHALL endeavour to do justice, not only to the accused but also to the state. Lest we forget, justice not only means the interests of the accused but also the interests of the state. I would give the assurance that in the exercise of my judicial function I would uphold the absolute independence of my judgement. The independence of the judiciary remains a cornerstone in the structure of our system of government today. It not only guarantees that justice will be done and judgements firmly based on truth; it is also an indispensable condition of the rule of law.”

So said Raja Azlan Shah on his elevation as a Judge of the High Court in Malaya in 1965. Seventeen years later he became the youngest ever Lord President of the Federal Court, but had to resign as he ascended the throne as the 34th Sultan of Perak in 1984 (possibly the only head of judiciary to become head of state — William Taft was President before later becoming Chief Justice of the USA). Five years later he became the ninth Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.

His legal career and reign each spanned three decades, and throughout this time his wisdom and experience became legendary, particularly among younger Malaysians. I was one of them, and later felt honoured to be invited to the renowned Sultan Azlan Shah Law Lectures, where I appreciated the extent of his contributions to the field of law internationally.

As monarch, Sultan Azlan Shah continued to offer insights that inspired citizens across different endeavours, and I’m grateful to Professor Datuk Seri Visu Sinnadurai for gifting me a copy of ‘Constitutional Monarchy, Rule of Law and Good Governance’ containing his edited selection of speeches. At the 11th Tunku Abdul Rahman Lecture in 1984, Sultan Azlan Shah said: “The rules concerning the independence of the judiciary are designed to guarantee that they will be free from extraneous pressures and independent of all authority save that of the law. They are, therefore, essential for the preservation of the rule of law.”

“I have a passionate concern for the truth which is the object of the historian,” he stated in a speech about the Malaysian Constitution. “We here were not unfamiliar with the principles of constitutional government – indeed, in the Malay States the traditional pattern of government was based upon seasoned concepts of sovereignty and we knew the wisdom of a division of the supreme power in the state.”

Much advice he issued remains pertinent, as in a lecture from 1986: “Society must have access to an independent and responsible press … in an attempt to maintain peace and security, the controls imposed on the press should be reasonable.” He closed by supporting a Freedom of Information Act: “under which members of the public have a right of access to specifically requested records, and that these should be made available, as of right, within a reasonable time”.                In an Aliran Seminar on Parliamentary Democracy, he stressed that: “the elected government is not free to exercise governmental power in any manner it chooses, for in a parliamentary democracy, the exercise of governmental power is bounded by the rules as spelt out in the Constitution and conventions”.

As Royal Patron of the Malaysian Students’ Law Society in the United Kingdom and Eire he expressed support for the Rukunegara: “It maintains our democratic way of life. It is a foundation for the creation of a just society and to ensure a liberal approach to the varied cultures and traditions of the unique mixtures that constitutes modern Malaysian society.”

There is much more in this collection, including references to Aristotle, Locke, Disraeli and Montesquieu; but not his well-written judgements, so it omits his famous quote: “Every legal power must have legal limits, otherwise there is dictatorship.”

Much can be learned from the tangible objects he left behind too. Among the exhibits at the Sultan Azlan Shah Gallery in Kuala Kangsar are personal items that he obviously cherished – shoes, briefcases, robes, hockey sticks, driving licences. Looking back on his own remarkable life, at the opening of the gallery, he said: “Every success achieved is a gift from Allah Almighty. However, Allah does not bestow His grace to those who are not diligent nor those who neglect their duties. I realise and am aware of his qada’ and qadar. But I am also very much aware of His promise to His servants who persevere and work hard in searching for His acceptance.”

There are those who will choose to remember Sultan Azlan Shah by a single event in 2009 precipitated by deficiencies in the political parties.  Instead of taking responsibility for their own failure to select winnable or reliable candidates, they let a situation unfold in which blame was attributed to the monarch instead. I am confident history will reveal how erroneous that attribution is. Al-Fatihah.